Is the European Jew Truly Free?
By Antony Lerman | 13/08/2009
The eruption of freedom across Europe in 1989 has not eradicated Jewish fear
Marina Abramovich, "The Hero," 2000.
Answering this question is like stepping into a labyrinth. You might enter it confidently knowing where you are going. But before too long you are lost and cannot find your way out. In searching—as a free European Jew—for the meaning of what it is for the European Jew to be ‘truly free', the increasingly elusive nature of the quest can lead to a loss of freedom in the process.
You could begin by asking: ‘Who's asking?' Posed by an Israeli periodical, even one committed to ‘in-depth and post-sectarian discussion,' the question could be carrying the hidden qualifying clause: ‘because in Zionist thought and practice, the Jew can only be truly free in Israel'. There is a hint of recognizing a new, post-Holocaust reality for European Jews, but then immediately inviting judgement on it by the criteria of Zionist ideology and the reality of Israel.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not crying ‘foul' here. It's perfectly legitimate for Zionist Israelis to take this approach. It would be strange if they hadn't. But is the Israeli Jew more free—by his own admission living surrounded by enemies, behind a wall, conscripted into the IDF, vilified by millions round the world, object of the ‘new antisemitism'—than the European Jew—living in open, multicultural societies, where problems are dealt with through multilateralism and compromise, where difference is valued, where ethnic and religious groups are free to develop their cultures and practice their faiths, and governments and the European Union guarantee the security of Jewish communities?
Of course, it's not that simple. These descriptions are partial truths. To an extent, it depends on what kind of Jew you want to be. Living under Jewish sovereignty, even in circumstances resembling a luxurious open-air prison, may offer many Jews a sense of inner freedom which is not available to the Jew in Europe, where being a permanent minority carries with it an ever-present vulnerability. ‘Stone walls do not a prison make,' wrote the poet Richard Lovelace in the 17th century. And to paraphrase the rest: If I'm free in my soul, I have the liberty of a soaring angel. And if the ‘only free man is the one who studies Torah,' as the Sages said in Tractate of Our Fathers (6 : 2), then that can be accomplished even behind bars.
But if this is being ‘truly free,' I am not convinced. After all, didn't God create man with free will? Philosopher Eliezer Berkovits thought freedom was the essence of Jewish existence; but freedom to do, as well as freedom to be; freedom to act in the world and not just sit in a box. I see the Torah-studying Jew as integral to the multifaceted nature of the Jewish people as any other kind of Jew, but the ‘Torah-true' kind of ‘true' freedom smacks of the quest for totality. Now if you're a Jew in a yeshiva, whether Merkav Ha-Rav in Jerusalem, or one in London's Stamford Hill or in Antwerp, I'll defend your right to seek the kind of totality to which your way of life strives. But let's not make it the general rule of what is truly free for any Jew.
There's no end of evidence of the danger of the quest for totality. Emmanuel Levinas, philosopher and European Jew, thought the preoccupation with totality, with being, to be misguided, and having studied under Heidegger—arch-philosopher of being and Nazi sympathiser—and then rejected him, he should know. Levinas's proposes an ethics situated in an ‘encounter' with the Other—as good an understanding of the freedom promised to the Jew in today's Europe as you will find.
For the Jew in Europe, history, especially in the form of the creation of the European Union and the collapse of Communism in 1989, has given rise to the absence of constraints—the negative liberty Isaiah Berlin outlined in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty'. I suspect that Berlin's critique of positive liberty, which he
believed to be susceptible to political abuse because it meant collective control and social engineering, was not unlike Emmanuel Levinas's critique of totality. And it is in this atmosphere of negative liberty that European Jews have the opportunity to create the conditions in which they can maintain their distinctiveness and, as citizens, play a full part in their own countries and in Europe as a whole.
Europe is a success story because, in the words of historian Steven Beller, it is the embodiment of the ‘soft power' of inclusion and mutuality
I am not looking at Europe through rose-tinted glasses. There are many obstacles in the way of achieving this balance. Europe is a success story because, in the words of the historian of Central European Jewry Steven Beller, it is ‘the embodiment of the “soft power” of inclusion and mutuality'.
Yet a struggle goes on between those who want to build the new Europe on the basis of more rules and regulations and those who want less. And the temper of the times—the fear of terrorism, the concern that some groups reject European common values, the economic meltdown, the constant pressure of the poor and the oppressed from the developed world wanting to enter Europe—brings out the authoritarian streak.
If this leads Europe away from its tolerant, multilateral path, there will be problematic repercussions for all minorities. But, strange as it may seem, particularly to the peddlers of the idea of the ‘new anti-Semitism,' this makes Jews the favoured minority for many at the highest levels of European politics and society. They are integrated, law-abiding, highly educated, and economically productive. Yes, in many ways the promise of 1989 and what it could mean for Jewish mutual cooperation over the strengthening of Jewish life and the reinforcement of the Jewish revival has not been fulfilled; then again, the Jewish position has never been so good.
Let us not be seduced by the idea that we should judge Jewish existence in Europe on the basis of whether the European Jew is ‘truly free'. Since 1989 we have had unprecedented freedom and many Jews have willingly grasped the opportunities that freedom represents. Yet fear stalks the land. Even as the Jewish cultural revival continues, alarm bells warn of the external threats emanating from the global anti-Israel, anti-Semitic left, or the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Jewish left, or the anti-Semitic Muslim monolith—I could go on.
That there are some dangers cannot be denied, but if this litany of complaints against a worldwide anti-Semitic web bears more than a little resemblance to the litany of complaint about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, it's no coincidence. I think Erich Fromm's theory of the ‘fear of freedom' is being validated in Europe today and it partly expresses itself in certain Jewish leaders, activists, academics and writers adopting a conspiracy theory mindset to make sense of the multiple threats they believe we and Western civilization in general now face. They seem to wish to escape from freedom, not embrace it; to favour neo-liberalism in their economic lives but to yearn for a form of authoritarianism in their Jewish lives. They see Jews as the objects of history, when it's so clear that the existence of Israel and the freedom realized after 1989 have made us the subjects of history.
The European Jew has to learn to take ‘yes' for an answer—‘yes' to the freedom on offer, however imperfect and complex and open-ended. We should count ourselves lucky that we are in a position to reject anyone trying to impose ‘true freedom' upon us. By avoiding the sign saying ‘This way for the truly free.' we can find our way out of the labyrinth.
Antony Lerman is the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, an independent think-tank.